In the Yogafit classes this term we have been developing a pose called Anjaneyasana – a deep lunge which sinks the hips down and stretches the groin. Ooh-er Mrs! This is extremely beneficial for us all to have a go at – obviously when suitably warmed up and when the time is right – don’t be tempted to spring into this one first thing in the morning or last thing at night.
Whilst it may be obvious that this pose is a hip opener, it would be very easy to argue that most of our work in yoga is opening the hips as there are many muscles that help to move the hip/leg joint.
There are over 20 muscles that cross the hip (the collection of inner thigh muscles known as the adductors, the collection of outer thigh muscles known as the abductors, the hip flexors in front, deep lateral rotators in back, and more), so any movement that stretches any of these muscles could be considered a “hip-opener.”
If you take a closer look at the diagram you will see that some muscles even span through the pelvis and hip joint, actually joining the upper leg bone to the lower back vertebrae. All of the muscles that move the hips can become weak due to a sedentary lifestyle (too much sitting on your ass) and so this puts an increased pressure on the spine as you compensate movements with the back muscles because your hips have become a bit lazy and tight.
Tight hips affect everything from your ability to do Anjayneyasana to simply being able to pick your socks up off the floor. More movement of the hips means more strength in the muscles and more circulation generally in the pelvic area. This will lead to decreased back pain, relief from constipation, decreased menstrual cramps plus opening the hips can create an energetic shift or release as well. The yogic tradition holds the hips as a storage ground for negative feelings and pent-up emotions, especially ones related to control in our lives. Hip-opening can also create space for the birth of new ideas and new pathways….
Opening the hips gives us access to freedom of movement in the body and in our own unique expression — creatively, physically, and spiritually. Enjoy – even simple cross legged pose will do it!
Our relaxation exercises in the Beginners Yoga last term were inspired by the book ‘Learn to Relax’ by Mike George. It is a very readable book interspersed with exercises to help reduce stress, live in the moment and relax. As you go further into the book there are sections on finding harmony in the relationships in your life, finding time for meditation and letting go of the past. I thoroughly recommend it to everyone as it has something to offer on those days when you may not feel like a physical or spiritual practice – perhaps you may be a bit down in the dumps, and it brings some perspective to your circumstances. Sadness, fear and anxiety all lead to stress and a physical tightness in the body. In turn this can lead to reduced breathing capacity denying your body and brain the vital life source (prana) which comes from oxygen. The result is illness and disease and we want to avoid that as much as possible.
Got a question about yoga? Want to know where to put your arm in Trikonasana? How does Downward Dog help your shoulders? Why do we chant OM? In this new series I’ll try to answer all your questions… this one is often asked in the Beginners Yoga class…
What’s the right breathing for Marjariasana (cat and cow postures)?
The Cat and Cow postures begin on all 4s. First off, check that your posture feels solid, that your hands support your shoulders and your knees support your hips. If you feel any discomfort in your knees find a towel and make a soft pad to kneel on. If you feel any discomfort in your hands or wrists, again get a towel and place it under your wrists to see if this helps. If you can’t get comfortable then this exercise is not for you at this time.
When you are set up, visualise your spine like a thick rope with your head at one end and your bottom at the other. With this picture in your mind, begin to notice the breath and the next time you breathe in allow the ‘rope’ to sink down in the centre, then as you breathe out pull the ‘rope’ up wards towards the ceiling at the centre point. Don’t jerk, keep the breath and the movement smooth and continue with each in and out breath to see the rope moving, bending gently down and up.
This is breathing in.
This is breathing out.
When you feel like you’ve had enough, take a rest, sink your bottom down to your heels and support your head either on your arms, hands or the floor. Use your hands to push yourself up to kneeling when you feel ready.
Marjariasana is very beneficial for spinal flexibility and improvement of hand/arm strength. It is one of the fundamentals of yoga and is a great foundation on which many other postures are based. With that in mind it is really good to practice every day for a few rounds, you will then be able to glide gracefully into the plank, down dog, the cobra and many many more postures.
This article by Adam Sinicki from healthguidance.orgs website give a mans view of why people should do yoga. It’s very down to earth – they are not my top reasons for doing yoga, but it is interesting to see a different view (especially a mans) now and again!
It’s easy to look at yoga and to think of it as a waste of time. After all, if you’re going to spend your time on exercise, then you probably want it to be as effective as possible for weight loss and/or muscle building. While holding yoga poses can be challenging, it’s hardly enough to trigger any significant fat burning or to build much muscle, and so you might be tempted to skip it in favor of a weightlifting program or some cardiovascular exercise.
But it’s a mistake to write off yoga completely. For while it might not be the most effective tool for body recomposition in the short term, it’s actually probably much closer to what you actually need right now. If you want to feel energetic, healthy and vibrant: then yoga is probably the solution. And when you start feeling better, you’ll likely find that you’re better able to stick to a training program as well leading to the physical changes you want.
If you’re still not convinced, then keep reading to discover some convincing reasons that you should be doing yoga.
Reason #1 – You Are Probably Very Stiff
Most people aren’t all that interested in becoming more flexible, so that alone doesn’t offer much incentive for us to start a class that revolves mostly around stretching. Being able to do the splits or touch your toes doesn’t really serve much purpose during our day-to-day activities, so why bother?
The answer is simple: you probably aren’t just ‘not flexible’, but are likely to in fact be incredibly stiff. That’s likely, seeing as the vast majority of people are actually very stiff. This is a result of living inactive lives, as well as spending large amounts of time sitting in a hunched up position at a desk. This position is actually particularly bad because it causes our hip extensors to shorten and our flexors to become weaker.
The point is: you don’t need yoga to become flexible, you need it to get back to normal. You are currently operating at a sub-par level of flexibility along with serious imbalances which together are likely to lead to back pain, poor mobility and low energy. Do you wake up in the morning feeling achy? Does it hurt when you squat down to pick something up off the floor? That’s because your stiff and you need yoga in order to get yourself back to normal health. When you do, you’ll find that you stop feeling like an old man or woman and go back to feeling spritely, energetic and mobile.
Reason #2 – It Improves Performance
If you have any interest in sports, athleticism or physical performance, then yoga should be on your radar. The benefits might be a little more subtle here than they are for something like weightlifting, but nevertheless they can give you the edge over your competition.
For starters, flexibility makes you far more agile, while the sense of your body in space (proprioception) will help you to be more dexterous and physically cunning. These things can help you in parkour, martial arts, dancing, football and more. Likewise, being more flexible can increase your progress in the gym (because it lets you increase your range of motion) and studies show that increasing flexibility can lead to immediate strength gains (1). It can also help you to avoid injury from pulled muscles and it can greatly increase your balance – and all these things can help give you a significant advantage over your competitors in almost any physical contest.
Reason #3 – It Boost Brain Power
Yoga is beneficial in ways that you probably wouldn’t expect as well. For instance, yoga has been shown in studies to actually be good for brain power as well. Here it was demonstrated that those practicing yoga would receive a boost in ‘reaction times and creativity’ after a 20 minute session – and that these improvements would be greater than those achieved through other forms of exercise (such as aerobic exercise). The session specifically involved 20 minutes of yoga postures followed by meditative postures and deep breathing. Following this exercise, participants were better able to focus, process information quickly and hold information in their mind.
Likely, this is a result of using exercises aimed specifically at strengthening the mind-body connection, alongside the use of meditation which revolves around calming the mind and increasing focus. Finally, the controlled breathing may aid the flow of oxygen to the brain. As exercise of any kind is also known to boost memory and help us to grow new brain cells, this then provides the ‘perfect storm’ for the brain (2).
Add to that the fact that yoga is good for improvement our mood and combating stress (3) and it’s clear that it is a very useful psychological tool.
Reason #4 – Anyone Can Do Yoga
Perhaps the greatest benefit of yoga is how accessible it is. Yoga is a form of exercise that can truly be used by anyone and while even something like jogging can be hard on the joints of the elderly, yoga can be practiced as intensively or as gently as suits the individual.
Moreover, yoga can also be learned from home with no need to go to an actual class. While attending a class will lead to faster progress and enhanced benefits, it is possible to see many benefits simply from practicing stretches that you can find relatively easily on YouTube. Likewise, it’s possible to see benefits using only relatively short workouts of a few minutes – something that can’t necessarily be said of other exercise routines.
Reason #5 – It’s Cool
One of the reasons that yoga gets overlooked by many people is its reputation, which is that it’s a little ‘hippyish’ or ‘girly’. Suffice to say that many jocks or strongmen might feel a little self-conscious practicing it.
Actually though, at the advanced levels, some forms of yoga are objectively very cool – eventually having much in common with hand balancing, capoeira or breakdancing. Ashtanga yoga at the more advanced levels for instance incorporates moves like handstands, v-sits, forms of plank and more. There’s nothing ‘girly’ about that!
Sit on your mat with the legs outstretched. Carefully bend the right knee and place the sole of the foot against the inside of the left thigh. Carefully bend the left knee and place the left heel to the outside of the left buttock. Turn your torso to the right and take a breath in, as you exhale walk the hands down either side of the right leg, lowering yourself down over the bent leg. Fold forward as far as is comfortable, making any adjustments to the position of your legs. Relax into the posture for around 5 breaths before coming out on the inhale, walking the hands back upwards to return to an upright seated posture.
Outstretch the legs once more and then begin with the left leg, carefully repeating the posture to the left side.
This is a great asana (posture) to stretch the back and pelvic region, it opens the hip joints and stretches the thighs. The abdominal organs are gently massaged (as you get lower down in the posture over time) which helps the digestive system. It is a great preparation pose for meditation postures, quieting the mind and opening the hip joints.
It’s actually quite difficult to put into words why yoga is so good for us. For those who have been practicing for some time , I’m sure you know, it just feels right in so many ways. I think the words below by Vanda Scaravelli (taken from her book “Awakening the Spine”) go some way to help describe why we should all give a little time each day to a yoga practice. And for those times when we have wandered away from our mat, they are words of encouragement to get back to it!
“If you practice yoga, your everyday activities will improve and become more efficient. You will have less time for useless occupations which constantly get in the way, preventing your contact with more essential things. Yoga is like a sieve through which the superficial falls away, leaving only what is important.
When you are tired, your digestion will improve if you do some poses before eating. You will need to sleep fewer hours as your body will be more relaxed during the night. You will gain a few inches in height. By eliminating that curve along the back of the spine and allowing space between your vertebrae, you will grow a little taller. You will be able to improve the poses, as there is no end to progress. You will grow straighter if one part of the body is weaker that the other, by paying a lot of attention while doing your poses. By continuing this attention throughout the day, you will reach a better balance.
You will no longer be a slave to your body, as independence from it is the greatest gift you can receive.
Health is freedom. When we are healthy the body is not “in the way”, it will be better prepared to react against illness and disease.
The presence of the body should not be felt negatively. It is only when it does not work properly or when it is ill that we feel encumbered by its presence. Even when a small part of it is disturbed, like a mild pain in a cut finger, or a simple cold that blocks your nose, keeping you busy the whole day with a handkerchief in your hand, or a sore throat which makes you lose your voice, it heavily reminds you of its existence and you are obliged to become conscious of it all the time.
Yoga is a way of life. It changes you and therefore changes the way you relate to other people and influence your environment.
As the sun delicately opens the flowers, unfolding them little by little, so with slow and careful training, yoga exercises will open the body.
When the body is open, the heart is open. There is a transformation in the body’s cells. They work in a different way, and new growth is possible.
To re-establish contact with our body is to be in contact with nature, and so to come in contact with the cosmos.
Balance is restored. Space is around us and that tremendous power, arising from the earth in unison with these universal forces, will become part of us.
What is that binding force that holds the many worlds together and whose intensity also attracts us to each other? Can we call it gravity, energy, love?”
This excerpt give a great example of how Vanda Scaravelli passes on so much rich information in a form that we can all understand. The book is called ‘Awakening the Spine’ and is crammed full of such gems – a perfect present for yourself or a loved one.
I like to chant OM 3 times at the beginning and end of all my classes. I’m sure over the course of my teaching this might have put some people off coming to yoga – it is a bit weird to the Western ear. But I still like to do it even for people at their very first class. It makes me feel very calm and ready to teach the class. Everyone has the choice to chant or just listen.
It also helps students become ready for their class too. There are may theorised benefits about chanting or listening to OM –
helps to elongate the breath – this has many benefits including fully oxygenating the tissues of the body and gentle massaging of the heart by the diaphragm.
The sound vibrations help to calm the nervous system.
The single focus helps to clear the mind of daily clutter.
How to chant a good OM
Sit comfortably with your back straight. Lift the ribcage and elongate the spine.
Breath quietly and calmly for a few breaths.
Take a lovely, long deep inhale – expand you ribcage out to the sides of the room.
On the exhalation begin chanting OM – there are 4 distinct parts –
Chant twice more. (3 oms a day help you work, rest and play!)
There was an article recently published in the FT about how OM chanting affected the brain waves and is very good for your mental health – you can read it here – but again, more theory!! I think as with most things in life you have to suck it and see for yourself.
In the Stretch and Relax classes this term we’ll have some time dedicated to our faces…. working with the muscles around the eyes, mouth and neck yoga can be used to literally give yourself a ‘facelift’. By toning the muscles of the face and giving them a ‘workout’ we improve the contours underneath the skin which can help to reduce fine lines and sagging. The circulation of blood and oxygen is improved and toxins are removed; giving a healthy glow to your skin. Don’t underestimate the power of our relaxations on your face too – 15 minutes of deep relaxation is said to be as valuable as 4 hours of sleep… and they don’t call it beauty sleep for nothing!
We will of course be working around the whole body with exercises some old favourites (Trikonasana) and some new poses (Dwikonasana) to give you a complete practice ending with a deep relaxation.
These classes take place
Monday Tinwell 7.15 – 8.15
Tuesday Preston 8 – 9
Wednesday Ryhall 6 – 7
The term runs from Juse 6th to July 22nd and the cost is £42. If you would like to sign up for this course please do get in touch asap and I can let you know the availability.
March 20th is the Equinox – where daylight hours are equal to night time. This is the time of year when yogis take cleansing practices.
There are a variety of yogic ‘shatkarmas’ – these days we call it detoxifying. The ancient yogis saw these practices as part of the purification of the body and mind. In our classes we have already practiced Kapalbhati which is a way of cleansing the mind using the breath. We are currently working with Trataka – gazing with unblinking eyes at a candle flame. Both of these practices are said to release deep seated emotions which can weigh down our thoughts and outlook on life. It is not necessary to know or be conscious that release is happening – but following the practice you may sometimes feel happier or lighter.
Other practices that are relevant to this time of year are neti (nasal cleansing) and lagoo (intestinal cleansing). Neti can help to relieve colds, sinus and eye problems. Lagoo can help to rectify imbalances in the gut and thoroughly clear out the colon.
If you would like any further information or advice on these practices, please do get in touch, I am able to offer them as part of my yoga therapy.
Our YOGA & MEDITATION classes this half term will have focus on releasing tension from the shoulders. We’ll be learning the safe practice of Salamba Sarvangasana (supported shoulder stand) and some variations to enable all to participate in the benefits that this wonderful posture can offer. These include –
soothing the nervous system and the mind, helping to relieve stress and mild depression
stimulating the thyroid
stretching the shoulders and neck
reducing fatigue and insomnia
This posture is best avoided if you have an injury to the neck or shoulder area. Please follow the modified versions.
To perform the full posture you will need to bring 2 woollen blankets or bath towels to make a thick pad of fabric 2″ deep. I will explain more in class but be on the look out for these props as without them it is not safe for your neck to practice this posture.
We’ll be learning about Samskaras – types of ‘memory scars’ laid down into the fibres of our being/body from emotions that we have experienced. You can read more about this in an interesting article by Freddie Wyndham here
Our pranayama practice will be developing Brahmari – the humming bee breath. This is a practice that develops a sweet voice and is said to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Some great practices that you will find beneficial for this time of year – beating the winter blues.